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Narrative cohesion has never been a strength or selling point for rock albums. Concept albums like Tommy and Arthur fall apart upon close analysis; whatever Sgt. Pepper is supposed to add up to, it doesn’t add up to a coherent narrative. What’s intriguing about Big Star’s 1974 opus Third/Sister Lovers is that, if the tracks are placed into a certain order, a coherent narrative does emerge. The pivot point of the narrative is a male protagonist unparalleled in the annals of popular music— a sensitive, androgynous if heterosexual young man, involved to the point of extinction in multiple relationships and contexts. Because the lyrical cohesion of the album is matched by startlingly original music— a compound of White Album-era Beatles, baroque pop like the Left Banke, and deconstructive impulses that really have no precedent but Lou Reed’s Berlin and solo Syd Barrett— Sister Lovers stands out as one of the highlights of the rock era, a masterpiece with its own integrity. Yet this integrity is difficult to find unless the songs are placed in a particular order— and the sequences that have held sway so far are not sufficient. The sequence that is being discussed here will be presented at the end of the piece. As far as the protagonist of the album is concerned, sensitivity and androgyny are adumbrated by perversity— the first track, “Kizza Me,” has him address “Lesa,” the heroine/anti-heroine of the album, “I want to white out…I want to come on out…I want to feel you, deep inside…” Between word games and graphic sexuality, we know that these characters are romantic, but marginal, artsy, possibly seedy— a subculture underbelly exposed, rather than Bruce Springsteen’s noble savages. The sound of the album is slow, warped, druggy— when the protagonist intones “nothing can hurt me/ nothing can touch me” in “Big Black Car,” we know that this is not only a revelation of obfuscated vulnerability but of intoxication. What’s important for the movement of the narrative is that the protagonist is investigating multiple relationships— we meet Lesa first, then in “O, Dana” we meet Dana and her circle of friends. “O, Dana” is, in fact, a crucial narrative hinge. The lyrics to “O, Dana” amount to a collage of voices; each line seems to represent a new person offering a witticism, lament, interrogation or interjection. Dana appears to be the person in the center who everyone wants, including the protagonist. The most interesting lines accrue to the second bridge— “She’s got a magic wand/ that says, Play with yourself before other ones.” The protagonist reveals numerous things in these lines— that he is, in fact, if not a poet, at least poetic (he thinks in metaphors); that he is aware of Dana’s recalcitrance as he desires her; and that he considers this magic wand a perverse anti-phallic symbol, symbolizing Dana’s reluctance to get involved, even if Lesa has extended her generosity to him on this level. After “O, Dana,” the dichotomy between Lesa and Dana is clear— Lesa, as love-object, is a singular entity, difficult but yielding; Dana is at the center of a frenzied social nexus, where satellites are a part of her persona. One thing Sister Lovers avoids is a direct confrontation between Dana and Lesa; until “Nighttime,” Lesa never vocalizes her discomfort with Dana’s circle. But once all these balls are in the air, it is clear that the Sister Lovers narrative is essentially a love triangle. This applies even if we never see Dana without her friends; not a “she” but a “they.” For the protagonist, the situation amounts to sensory overload. The centerpiece of the album, where the protagonist is concerned, is “Holocaust.” As a lyric, “Holocaust” is pure portraiture— it shows the protagonist in an emotional, psychological, and physical vacuum. It is also doused, on a level with Faulkner, in a Southern Gothic sensibility— the product of a mercilessly hot climate and the slow lugubriousness it engenders. Beyond the lyrics, the usage of slide guitar as auditory manifestation of psychic torment is particularly effective. It’s a more refined, inventive version of the slide guitar passages in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” The disturbing quality of what could be called the Oedipal passage in the song (“Your mother’s dead/ she said, don’t be afraid/ Your mother’s dead/ You’re on your own/ She’s in her bed”) is born of its ambiguity— is she dead or isn’t she? And the richest lines in the song function as a repeated refrain— “Everybody goes, leaving those who fall behind/ Everybody goes as far as they can/ They don’t just scare.” The viciousness of Dana’s gang could qualify them to be the “everybody”; that the protagonist “just scare(s),” lacks courage in the face of opposition, is something we’ve seen in “Big Black Car.” Yet the extreme sluggishness of the music (which contrasts interestingly with a gorgeous melody) suggests intense, sickly drunkenness. Self-pity could be a constituent element of the music too. What makes the track so chilling is the incredible intimacy conveyed in Alex Chilton’s vocal. The track was
mixed and engineered (by John Fry and Jim Dickinson) so that Chilton’s vocal hovers right at the top of the mix. To the extent that Chilton and the protagonist can be conflated, Chilton paints his own self-portrait. It is a profile in utter darkness, even if social contexts rear their heads. The mirror mentioned in the “Holocaust” lyric is itself a potent symbol for the song. Even if the mirror is being gazed into in an unlit room. The mirror is a symbol— and symbolic material and imagery is strewn haphazardly through Sister Lovers. “Big Black Car” suggests a hearse; we see Lesa’s scarves and blue jeans in “Kangaroo” and “Nighttime”; Beale Street, in Midtown Memphis, manifests in “Dream Lover”; gymnasts and kleptomaniacs are used to suggest Dana’s friends in “You Can’t Have Me”; and, of course, Dana’s anti-phallic magic wand. It is important to note, however, that the relationship between the protagonist and Lesa remains a predominant theme throughout the record. This is consolidated in a run of songs at the end— “Dream Lover,” “Blue Moon,” “Take Care.” These songs seem to represent the protagonist’s final intervention and withdrawal. The final withdrawal is from Lesa; after “Nighttime,” Dana and her crew fade to the back. This is seemingly at Lesa’s instigation. One of the unique aspects of this narrative is that the protagonist is not forced to choose one, but to reject both. By “Take Care,” he sounds utterly exhausted. The album does represent an exhausting journey. And how many rock albums represent this much nuanced movement? Sister Lovers, pieced together this way, has the richness of high art. That it remains a “cult classic” is understandable; the vision of the album is extreme. Ultimately, it has more to do with Sir Philip Sidney than with the Beatles and their contemporaries. It is, for my money, the greatest rock album of all time. That Alex Chilton is seldom mentioned as one of the greatest songwriters in rock history is owing to a master narrative created by underlings. But works of high art are meant to evolve over long periods of time. So some of us hope it will be with Sister Lovers. What time may take from others, it may give to Big Star. Posterity does have a brisk way with treacle. Adam Fieled Kizza Me Thank You Friends Big Black Car Jesus Christ Femme Fatale O Dana Holocaust Nature Boy Kangaroo Stroke It Noel You Can’t Have Me Nighttime Dream Lover Blue Moon Take Care
Post-Avant Rock: The Other Alex Chilton (and Chris Bell!)
In 2009, I put up a blog post on my blog Stoning the Devil about a strain of poetry which went under the name "post-avant." Before then, no one had particularly defined what "post-avant" poetry was. I gave postavant two definitions; one was meant specifically for post-avant as a form of poetry, one could be used as a catch-all phrase for any kind of art which could be deemed post-avant. That definition was "anything with an edge." If you want to apply a dictum to Alex Chilton's m.o. in everything musically significant he did other than (and including) Third/Sister Lovers, "anything with an edge" fits like a glove. Several works need specifically to be considered: Big Star's Radio City and parts of #1 Record, the Alex Chilton solo record (Jim Dickinson produced) Like Flies on Sherbert, and some of the material Chilton recorded in NYC in the Swinging Seventies. The Chris Bell solo album I Am the Cosmos, released fourteen years after Bell's death in '78, also counts, and fits under the "anything with an edge" rubric. Much of what came out of Memphis in the Seventies does fit under the post-avant rubric, and Jim Dickinson's whole fethishistic approach to making records was a post-avant approach. The Memphis crew which sustained these guys was edgy. Of all the accomplishments just mentioned, Big Star's Radio City is the most vaunted and, in fact, often goes higher on some rock critics' lists than Third/Sister Lovers does, so we'll deal with Radio City first. Radio City is a collection of twisted power-pop songs which were recorded after Chris Bell left Big Star. Several key components of the songs distinguish the album. First and foremost is Alex Chilton's guitarplaying. He uses complicated arpeggios extensively and uniquely, so that Radio City is hardcore as a rock guitar player's wet dream; an album of indie guitar heroics. Chilton's playing isn't grandiose the way you'd expect to hear from Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, and Page, but it's phenomenally tasteful and expressive just the same. The way the guitars are mixed is dense, and the tone of the Radio City guitars is trebly in the extreme. Some musicians hear Byrds-like "jangle" in Radio City, but there's also a certain amount of Keith Richards "crunch." That's one of Radio City's big musical equations: the Byrds magically melded with the Stones, McGuinn with Keef. What makes the album so edgy is that the song structures and the lyrics are unconventional, and oddly formed. Though the melodies are catchy and solid, Big Star sound, always, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, with cacophony and chaos right around the corner. The songs have awkward breaks and pauses, Jody Stephens' punctuations on drums are abrupt and emphasize how combustible the musical approach is, and there's always a hinge to disarray. Lyrically, there's plenty of mischievous sex, in the Chilton tradition, but there's also a sense that Chilton is playing edgy games to thwart the inclusion of cliches: he sings "you're gonna get your place in the scene/ all God's orphans get fates in the dream/ now, you get what you deserve" in "You Get What You Deserve," or "She tells the men Go to Hell/ and where that's at is where I'm comin from" in "She's a Mover." The album has a number of centerpieces: "September Gurls" is a straightforward slice of hard rock candy, with a memorably trebly guitar break, and "Daisy Glaze" is a tempo-changing, warped bit of inchoate angst which includes some of the most intricate arpeggiated guitar work in the rock canon. Those who prefer Radio City to Third/Sister Lovers like the twisted approach and that many of the songs are uptempo; the edginess of the approach is that all the power-pop elements are inverted away from standard usage. Radio City influenced the approach of 80s bands like the Replacements and 90s power-popsters the Gin Blossoms, and for AmerIndie and college radio remains a reference point. Like Flies on Sherbert, Alex Chilton's late 70s classic, is more an exploration of kitsch, a swan-dive into total cheese that listens like an attractive junk-heap. The cover photo, by Memphis native William Eggleston, has the same aesthetic; if the picture (affixed to this post) seems to veer towards misogyny, it's with a twist towards lightness and satire rather than serious intentions. The title of the album can also be taken as a kind of metaphor; Chilton, Jim Dickinson and their cohorts were themselves like flies on the great big "sherbert" of kitshcy Americana, where pop music was concerned. This album is about "roots" retooled, and mixes covers like "Girl After Girl," "Alligator Man," and even K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes," with unsettling, drunken Chilton originals like "Hook of Crook" and "My Rival." Chilton's songs have an undertone of violence here which is lacking on the Big Star albums for the most part: he sings "I would kill to pursue my will," or "my rival/ I'm gonna stab him on arrival/ shoot him dead with my rifle." Still, the feel of the album is
jovial, and Chilton sounds (somewhat unlike on the Big Star albums) like he's thoroughly enjoying himself. Chilton mixed the album himself, and in true, edgy "junk-heap" fashion, stray "white noise" and detuned instruments are let in to enhance the ambience of intoxication and the outre. The major piece Chilton recorded himself in NYC, "Bangkok," fits neatly into this vein; it's an exploration of sleazy, deviant sex done up in rockabilly finery. It also functions as an embrace of kitsch (which could be taken as a rejection of the Big Star ethos): "Margaret Trudeau, Jackie O/ Madame Nu and Brigitte Bardot/ Bangkok!" Chilton was clearly frustrated by the inability of "serious" material to sell (Sister Lovers wasn't even released until '78), so that diving into the frivolous was a kind of escapism for him and his Memphis cohorts. The music Chris Bell was recording all through the Seventies in Memphis was much more earnest and less demented than Chilton's. Bell stayed in confessional mode after he left Big Star. He also converted hardcore to Christianity. A song like "Better Save Yourself" is dark to the point of bleakness, also uses arpeggiated guitars placed up in the mix, and represents a state of torment which gives a clue as to why Bell died at a young age (27) in 1978. Bell's recordings have an interesting ambience, as he was dedicated to studiocraft as well as songcraft, and the airiness he built into Big Star's #1 Record is present on I Am the Cosmos, too. But he doesn't twist things the way Chilton does, and his edge has to do with psychological collapse and ambivalence: "I really want to see you again/ I never want to see you again" he sings on the title track. "Speed of Sound" manages to sound lush in spite of Bell's torment, and the acoustic guitars are miked in such a way that they define a large amount of auditary space. Clearly, Bell was attracted to how Big Star's #1 Record, the one on which he played the largest role, sounded, and his solo recordings are a natural companion to #1 Record. In terms of "post-avant" rock music, others in the Seventies, from Fripp, Bowie, Eno, and Byrne on one side to punk and New Wave on the other, were attracted by a post-avant approach. David Bowie, in particular, made a conscious attempt not to put out anything that didn't demonstrate some kind of edge, and for Bowie (whose intentions were at least partly commercial) this was a risky move. Chilton and Bell didn't not bear the weight of holding up a commercial edifice the way Bowie did; they were safely tucked away in the margins. They worked without being "welcomed to the machine." As such, they had almost complete artistic freedom. What they chose to do with that freedom carried with it the extremity of their personalities, and the extremity of the Memphis subculture which gave birth to those personalities. Mid-Town Memphis, in the Seventies, was its own nexus and its own center of gravity. If it remains worth looking into, it's because it had its' own way of nurturing talent, and the musicians drawn like flies to both the auto-destruct and the twisted ambience of the place produced works of popular musical art rich enough to be called sherbert. William Eggleston's "Dolls '70" proves conclusively that this ambience was felt by other artists in other disciplines as well; whatever it is, it's something about America, freedom, sex, despair, and good times which won't quit.
Narrative Development: Third/Sister Lovers
I have already put into print the notion that, for me, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers is the greatest rock album of all time. The caveat enjoined has to do with sequencing- that Sister Lovers takes its position at the top of the hierarchy only when put together in a certain way. Tracks like "Downs," "For You," and covers of the Kinks and Jerry Lee Lewis need to be dropped, "Nature Boy" slotted between "Holocaust" and "Kangaroo," the album end with "Take Care," etc. The miracle of I-Tunes is that anyone can accomplish this for themselves in 2012. What I want to offer here are some further notes as to what I have noticed about Sister Lovers as I continue to listen to it closely. What I've previously surmised is that the narrative of Sister Lovers involves a love triangle between the unnamed protagonist (Alex Chilton) and two female characters, Lesa and Dana. It now seems signifcant to me that "O, Dana" follows "Femme Fatale"; Dana's position vis a vis Alex Chilton is that of an unattainable femme fatale. The protagonist/ Chilton character is more richly drawn than at first appears; he sings to Dana in "O, Dana," "you seldom know what things are/ do illusions go very far?" He's spiritually and emotionally wise; thus, the logic behind the inclusion of "Nature Boy." One of the mysteries of Sister Lovers thus becomes, why does a protagonist this sensitive, this wise, and who is already involved with the Lesa character, fall for someone as hard and clannish as Dana? The simple answer is that this character has an Achilles' heel: he's a masochist. He likes to be abused. One pursuant thing which emerges from "Holocaust" is that this protagonist has a tendency to wallow in negative emotions, which Dana and her friends reinforce. He sees through Dana (whose eyes "couldn't hide anything" in "Kangaroo" and who "seldom knows what things are"), but likes to be hurt by her anyway, and ignore Lesa into the bargain, thus incurring Lesa's wrath. The album is resolutely first-person and personal; we never really hear Lesa and Dana's thoughts. Only one song features a significant reversal and recognition at once: "Nighttime." What the lyrics hint at obliquely is that Alex attempts to introduce Lesa to Dana and her clan, and Lesa rejects them out of hand: "get me out of here/ get me out of here/ I hate it here/ get me out of here." The song concludes on a note of devotion to Lesa, and the way the album ends ("Blue Moon" into "Take Care") reinforces this. The album begins and ends with Lesa, and is occupied with Dana and her posse in the middle; that's the structure. If Dana and Lesa are both rejected by the end, it's because the protagonist is too sensitive to extend himself anymore. The aimless drift of "Big Black Car" returns at the end, with more focus and pathos. If the album has one central lyrical message, it's this: to be touched is to be hurt. The resolution isn't particularly comforting, and is manifestly uncompromising. The staunch avantgardism of the music makes Sister Lovers a package girded against crass commercial success. The irony is that Sister Lovers, musically, is not only melodically rich but melodically stunning. "Holocaust," in particular, would not be so haunting if the melody and chord changes weren't as instantly memorable as anything Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson ever wrote. Owing to John Fry's engineering, Alex Chilton's voice is high in the mix, and the production values around Sister Lovers are quirky but immaculate nonetheless. There are even a few virtuosic touches like the "walking" bass on "Femme Fatale." Between the density of the lyrics and the richness of the music, there would seem to be few rock albums which Sister Lovers does not dethrone. Recent attempts to do something similar, like the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love, falter around unattractive, melodically unmemorable music, and overblown lyrical conceits. The albums I have recently spoken of as cohesive (Strange Days, Satanic Majesties, Sgt. Pepper, Velvet Underground and Nico) are only semi-cohesive in comparison with Sister Lovers, even if they reflect upon broader, more political themes. Other rock "relationship albums," like Blue, Rumours, and Layla, don't sustain any narrative intensity, or any narrative at all, for that matter; each song is its own entity, even if all the songs are thematically similar. What's interesting about Sister Lovers, other than the fact that the songs "talk back" to each other, is that though it's a cult favorite, not many people
have noticed that much to distinguish it. Works of art which grow slowly and quietly often start that way. Sister Lovers does in fact have the rare potential, for a rock album, to keep generating surprises after a hundred listens. It offers a protagonist as Southern, and Gothic, as any created by Faulkner or Carson McCullers. "Holocaust" sounds so claustrophobic partly because it's meant to represent Southern heat- a swampy, sultry, sick, drunken Southern night. Of such nights is Sister Lovers hewn.
Interiors: Sister Lovers and the 70s
One facet of the rock master narrative that's never changed is this: in the early 1970s, a group of singersongwriters came to prominence (James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne) who conflated introspective tendencies with the desire to "confess" in their lyrics. Interestingly, this confessional trend mirrored something which had happened in English-language poetry ten years prior- New England poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman had made successful a highly stylized version of extreme Romanticism- first-person narratives which brought to light personal tragedies and vulnerabilities in an unmediated way. In the translation from "haute" to popular culture, the bathos of Lowell became the bathos of James Taylor- a song like "Fire and Rain," his break-out hit, dramatized his personal struggle with accepting mortality after the death of one of his friends. The music was not the folk-rock of the Byrds but folk-pop: pleasant, major-key, and easy to listen to or ignore. One of the features of early-Seventies singer-songwriters was a dichotomy between melancholy lyrics and dulcet music- the sense that sugar-coating could sell bathetic confessionalism. Jackson Browne was the most extreme (and sharpest) of these singer-songwriters, whose perceptively probing lyrics could be devastating, but whose music was as sunny "California" as it could be. "Doctor My Eyes," his hit from '72, is a bizarre mixture of breeziness and the macabre; the dichotomous split between lyrics and music is almost laughable. The main idea of the singer-songwriters (this is a part of the rock master narrative which makes sense) was to move inwards, towards a state of self-absorption, rather than extending the communal, countercultural impulses of the Sixties. The basic gist seemed to be that the communal had failed- but the shattered dreams of individuals were still worth exploring. If Sixties sociability became Seventies self-absorption, what rock audiences wanted was to have their concerns (personal relationships and vulnerabilities) mirrored. The problem is that in 2012, albums like Carole King's Tapestry (a monster commercial success at the time) and Joni Mitchell's Blue (a monster critical success over the last forty years) now sound tepid and self-indulgent, wrapped up in their own platitudes. A better, sharper, more imaginative version of Seventies self-absorption was Big Star's Third/ Sister Lovers, recorded in Memphis in the mid-Seventies but not released until '78. If the album has a centerpiece, it's "Holocaust," which is both musically and lyrically extreme in a manner that the more mainstream singer-songwriters never were. Sister Lovers does have an interesting sense of musical avant-gardism working in its favor- the way it was produced (by Jim Dickinson), the music is structured unconventionally to include eerie "breakdowns" or "breakage," wherein songs drift into periods of inchoate discord or dark hushes. The extremity of Sister Lovers accounts for the fact that there is no dichotomous wall separating lyrics from music- both are strange and haunted. What Alex Chilton, the avatar of Sister Lovers, confesses to is multiple- within the context of a love triangle, he confesses not merely to an inability to relate but an inability to transcend venomous self-loathing (which engenders perpetual self-abasement.) That's what "Holocaust" is, lyrically- an exercise in self-loathing. The best rock lyricists of the Sixties (Davies, Reed, Jagger, et al) were not big on self-abasement and selfhatred; nor, incidentally, were confessional poets like Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and Berryman. Even at the edge of the abyss, Plath mythologizes herself as "Lady Lazarus," a kind of reverse goddess. If Chilton cuts deeper than these poets, it's because he speaks out of a context he created on Sister Lovers (the love triangle with Dana and Lesa), rather than wallowing. This context, however strange Sister Lovers is, is dynamic; it places Chilton's self-abasement, self-hatred, and self-absorption within something. If you put Chilton's Seventies centerpiece against some Sixties centerpieces ("A Day in the Life," "2000 Light Years from Home"), what comes across is that the protagonist of "Holocaust" is not a space-cadet or an Everyman; he's someone so submerged in his interiority that it's difficult to sense how he appears on the surface. Sister Lovers is "music from the depths"- it's uncompromising in a way that the more commercially successful singer-songwriters were not willing to be. Sister Lovers shares with Ray Davies a stance against engaging the topical- but (usually) from a first-person perspective. Because the songs are affixed to a plot which thickens and concludes (in some sequences), we
sympathize with this protagonist, as we do with the narrators of many Davies songs. He has an interior and an exterior life. Where Lou Reed is concerned, the only thing which seems to be deviant about this character is his degree of self-loathing. The funny thing is to put Alex Chilton up next to the complacency of James Taylor or Cat Stevens. Complacency is one of the reasons critic Lester Bangs found James Taylor so annoying- however much he whined, he himself was never the problem, and what he confessed was tainted by this syndrome. The dichotomy of "shallow depths" disappears in Sister Lovers into a realm of genuine emotional torment. Public mythologies are prevalent around the making of this record- that Alex Chilton was non compos mentis on drugs most of the time, and that his relationship with Lesa Aldredge exacerbated this. Alex Chilton, in '74, was living out what James Taylor was faking. Considering what had happened to the Sixties stalwarts by '74 artistically (especially the Stones and Kinks), Chilton was by then the most relevant figure in rock music, even if no one knew it at the time. Bruce Springsteen's eruption the next year in some ways worked as an American renascence to the Ray Davies "manner"- but confessional rock reached its apotheosis in Sister Lovers. Between Chilton and Springsteen, America in the Seventies had produced two rock songwriters who upped the ante against countercultural conformity, clannishness, and elitism.
Big Star and America Pt. 1
There is a video floating around YouTube (under the mysterious moniker trogg1980) of a young Alex Chilton, singing with the Box Tops, a pop-group that sounded like the Monkees meets Wilson Pickett. The song he is singing is The Letter, the Box Tops’ biggest hit, a number one single in 1967 (which everyone remembers for its unforgettable opening line, Gimme a ticket for an aer-o-plane….) Watching young Chilton, it is clear immediately that something is amiss. The Box Tops were put together (as the Monkees were) by producers looking to make money with songs they had written. They knew that in Alex’s voice, they had hit pay-dirt. Teenage Chilton (just 16 when The Letter hit number one) had a voice to rival that of the young Elvis: gravel-y, husky, throaty, just a little dangerous sounding. It was the voice of a much older, much more experienced man; somehow, a 16-year-old was able to channel decades of experience. But, as with Elvis, the songs were not his own. In this video, teenage Chilton manages to convey direct engagement, ironic disdain, and hipster cool at the same time. He is miming; after a certain point, you can tell that he is deliberately fudging his attempts to mime. When Elvis looked at the camera, there was innocence, open sexuality, and a desire to win people over. When Chilton looks at the camera, face often hidden by bangs of long hair, he looks as if he is daring his audience to engage a threat that he is sending out. Elvis was happy to maintain the established order, and sneak sex and rebellion in the back door; Chilton’s truculence is right up front, as is the spectre of a dark, brooding sexuality (somewhat shocking to see in a 16-year-old, but extreme precocity turned out to be Chilton’s fate and his bane.) About ten seconds before the clip ends, Chilton breaks into a grotesque, absurd parody of teen dancing; it is as blank a statement of complete alienation as one is likely to encounter in popular culture. Yet it is done seductively; there is a magic to it that suggests how deep the sex and the perversity ran in him. In short, the Chilton we see in this clip is a kind of beautiful creep. His stance before the world is fully established, but he is yet to pen the songs that give vent to the demons of precocity, “too much too soon” ennui, and effete perversity that will become his legacy in a few years. It is important, of course, to remember that the Box Tops were, in fact, from Memphis. They were themselves weaned on Elvis; were nurtured by the community that nurtured Elvis; were white boys whose musical career hinged on an ability to sound black. Chilton’s father was a jazz musician; his mother ran an art gallery. Thus, employing alienation techniques was second nature to him; he had experience of both high and low idioms, where art (specifically, musical art) was concerned. On a certain level, Elvis would have been afraid to express the kind of open disdain that Chilton did; Elvis wanted the money and the fame too badly. They seemed like a substantial reward to him, something that would make him important. Presley’s America had everything to do with the classic, tried-and-true American dream formula: rags to riches, poor to rich, unknown to famous. Chilton grew up middle-class and in an artistic milieu; his vision of America was haunted by higher purposes and designs than Elvis’s was. Coming from a stable, if not monied background, Chilton was accustomed to finding himself at least on a level with anyone he might happen to meet, if not superior. He had no need to rise in society; in fact, downward mobility came to represent his metier, on
several levels. What is specifically American about Chilton is the confluence of influences that created him and his best music: painting, jazz, Memphis soul, and, perhaps most importantly, Chilton’s encounter with British rock and the British Invasion bands that dominated the rock scene when the Box Tops hit it big in the mid 1960s. This level of Chilton-as-signifier cannot be underestimated: Chilton (along with Chris Bell, who we will meet shortly) represents the first, and best, American response to the British Invasion bands, most specifically the Beatles, Stones, Who, and Kinks. Though the American Byrds were also a powerful influence, Chilton managed to find a Golden Mean between Memphis Soul, British Invasion rock, and his own perverse muse. But, back to the Box Tops. The Box Tops enjoyed several hit singles following The Letter, most notably Cry Like a Baby. However, Chilton’s disdain for this kind of success (and himself as a kind of slacker Elvis, singing someone else’s songs) was mounting. After a certain point, he quit in 1969. He found himself in a strange, liminal position; he was not exactly famous, and though everyone was familiar with his voice, no one was familiar with him. His voice had been exploited for someone else’s gain; he had been used, been made to do what he did not want to do so that someone else could make money. Elvis wound up exploiting himself; Chilton was used as a puppet. Chilton’s precocity, the depth of his singing, belied an essential naivete about how the music business worked, and Chilton felt stung and cheated. On the other hand, Chilton’s dedication towards music was increasing exponentially; he taught himself to play guitar, at which he showed a natural aptitude, and began writing songs. Chilton was not about to let himself be pushed out of the music business because it had bitten him; he was too curious about all the different directions in which he could develop. Chilton was an ambitious artist; he set goals for himself and tried to achieve them. His choices could be baffling; but he did little randomly. Unlike Elvis, it was Chilton’s fortune and misfortune to never establish a safety-zone. Chilton spent about a year in New York City (where he apparently spent some time picking up tips from another Beatles-besotted musician, Roger McGuinn), but his path was still undefined. His voice was undergoing a big change; the gravel, dirt, and throatiness were replaced by a sharp, piercing higher register, a little bit Paul McCartney, a little bit Tim Buckley. He had also become a capable lead player. When he returned to Memphis in 1970, he found the city more than happy to embrace him again. His voice was widely known, he was not; but in Memphis, he was a star. As such, recording time was always available. Chilton took advantage of this to record the tracks that later came out as 1970. The songs show Alex trying to alchemize British influences with Memphis sleaze, with a few surprising forays into total cuteness (see The Happy Song). What is most important to notice about these tracks, the best of them, is their musical complexity, the deft way that Chilton has with chord progressions, his facility with melody, and the way that they get delivered as a kind of total package. Chilton does not yet have the key to his own aesthetic; it is still developing, but the seeds are there. This album is really the beginning of Anglo-Pop, of American rock musicians transmuting the transmutations of their British fore-runners. As such, this is America-via UK-via America. It’s a natural progression; the strength and beauty of the best British rock assured that eventually American rock musicians would want to work with its raw materials. It is especially interesting that this happened in Memphis, where rock and roll itself really began; and it’s probably not an accident. British rock changed American music forever; Chilton (and Big Star) were the first and greatest manifestation of this change yet. But we are not there yet; it will take the arrival of Chris Bell to really start the ball rolling.
There is now one Big Star song that has entered the common American idiom, one that everybody knows. The song is called In the Street, and a version (inferior to the original) by the Illinois band Cheap Trick is the theme song to the hit Fox comedy That 70s Show. Why didn’t the producers use the original? Probably because there is a line in the song (wish we had/ a joint so bad) that the producers deemed inappropriate, which is strange because the characters on the show smoke pot all the time. In any case, Fox’s choice of theme-music for an unusually racy show about libidinous teens entrenched in suburbia is entirely appropriate. The world that Big Star establishes on their first record (entitled #1 Record) is a suburban world, complete with adolescent delusions of grandeur (Big Star did, in fact, believe wholeheartedly that this would become a #1 record), innocent imitations of the Beatles, Stones, and Byrds, and pristine production, the
result of many years of studio training. It is a vision that Chilton contributed to immensely; nevertheless, the architect of this initial salvo, which failed to hit the intended mark (owing to distribution problems and poor timing), was Chris Bell, who co-wrote In the Street with Chilton. Before he met Bell, Chilton was a blossoming talent, but still unfocused; it was Bell who gave Chilton the push to explore his fascination with British rock. Bell was the catalyst for Chilton’s transformation from singer-songwriter to Anglo-Pop maestro. Bell’s history, though less remarkable than Chilton’s, is nonetheless revealing, and puts another piece in the Big Star jigsaw puzzle into place. Bell, unlike Chilton, was actually born and raised in the suburbs. Also unlike Chilton, Bell went to college after he was finished with high school. It was there he met Andy Hummel, who wound up playing bass on the first two Big Star records. Chilton’s experience of music was broad, and inclusive: singing blue-eyed soul made his voice famous, but he liked British rock, and he was raised in a milieu where jazz was always prevalent. Bell was a musical Anglophile, pure and simple. He had no interest in soul or jazz. For Bell, the Beatles were a religion. Also unlike Chilton, Bell was fascinated with the possibilities of the recording studio. As such, the arrival of Ardent Studios in Memphis was a God-send for him. Ardent was a studio that was loosely run, enough so that Bell could sit-in there and study studiocraft. Bell had visions of himself as a complete auteur. He played in various bands while also attending college and spending as much time at Ardent as he could. He was writing songs, too, and making demos. So when Chilton blew back into Memphis in 1970, the stage was more or less set. Before long, Chilton and Bell were musical brothers-in-arms, and had forged a partnership that they hoped would be their version of Lennon-McCartney. Chilton had new songs that topped anything on 1970; Bell had compiled a handful of superb demos, which only needed polishing. Hummel, Bell’s college buddy, had been recruited to play bass; Jody Stephens had joined as a drummer. The new, as yet unnamed band was doing regular sessions at Ardent. They needed a name. One night, they were sitting outside the studio, killing time, and they looked across the street and saw a sign for a Big Star Supermarket. They decided on Big Star as a moniker, and the world seemed to be theirs to conquer. It is important to note that, at this point, both Chilton and Bell were banking on a huge Big Star success. The potential hubris in calling their album #1 Record was not at all intended ironically; they were completely in earnest, and fully expected to become superstars immediately. Thus, the Big Star myth has as an important component part the notion of dashed expectations. There is a cockiness to parts of #1 Record, a bit of razzle-dazzle show-off, as Bell in particular shows what he can do. There was also an essential clash between Bell and Chilton, right from the start; Chilton wanted to play live, to tour, while Bell envisioned Big Star as (in the mold of the late-era Beatles) a studio band. The clash between Bell and Chilton highlights one of the fundamental things that British rock changed in American music; through the Beatles, American musicians began to see rock music as more of an art-form, and less as entertainment. The Elvis myth has very little “art” as such in it (and Chilton had, in his own way, lived out the Elvis myth); the Beatles myth had in it the transformation of popular music from entertainment to art, and the Beatles own transformation from entertainers to artists. Chilton’s upbringing had prepared him for this switch, so he did not resist Bell’s initial entreaties to focus on studio work; yet Chilton could not envision a future that did not include the stage, and live performance in general. This all occurred in 1972; ten years before this, the idea of a band holing up in a studio without performing would have been unthinkable. Yet all across the country, mavericks like Phillyborn Todd Rundgren were spending exorbitant amounts of time in the studio, trying to re-live for themselves the Beatles myth of transformation-into-artistry. This vision was a mania for Chris Bell; Chilton, typically, wanted the best of both worlds. The seeds of acrimony had been planted, on more than one level: Bell and Chilton’s expectation of complete success, along with the clash between studio and live work, put the band on unsure footing almost as quickly as it had found its feet. The other thing worth noting about #1 Record, before I go into the individual tracks, is the element of selfconsciousness audible throughout. Big Star, and particularly Chris Bell, were self-conscious creators; there always seems to be an assumed grasp of convention, and each musical detail that pays homage to the Beatles (or Byrds) is done meticulously, so that it cannot be missed. I would like to opine that this selfconsciousness invaded all forms of popular music after the Beatles, and the combined influence of the Beatles and Dylan made the myths that Elvis had promulgated (albeit unwittingly) seem retrograde. Now that rock stars viewed themselves as artists, and, more importantly, viewed their creations as works of art, the flood-gates opened for these musicians to make musical and lyrical STATEMENTS. So, #1 Record opens with Feel, which rips its horn section straight from Savoy Truffle from the White Album. Bell (this is Bell’s song) assumes a few things; that his audience will most likely have heard Savoy Truffle; that paying homage through deliberate imitation is a viable strategy, when it is done with subtlety (the horns are only featured briefly in the song); that he is joining the line of musicians that started with the Beatles by pulling this move; and that, as jazz-men used to say, if it sounds good, it is good. I would not be writing this if I thought that this were an isolated incident; but I find Chris Bell to be no less representatively American than
the young Elvis and, for college-educated youths such as he was, the Beatles spelled a pass-key into serious art and serious myth simultaneously. Bell’s entire approach was an attempt to re-live the Beatles myth; that he tried and failed demonstrates the heterogeneity of music at a time when things (with Dylan semi-retired and the Beatles defunct) were up for grabs again. But Big Star’s eventual emergence as cult heroes is no accident; American indie rock, from the 80s onward, shows a heavy Anglo obsession, and prizes the willful eccentricity of fabled talents like Lennon, Townshend, and certainly Ray Davies. But we have left off with the first track; diving deep into #1 Record, a distinct vision of America does present itself, and makes a bridge from Anglo form to American content.
As has been stated, Big Star’s first release was accompanied by high expectations from the band, particularly from Chris Bell and Alex Chilton. It did not perform as expected; Big Star were signed to Ardent, a subsidiary of the famed Memphis label Stax, which had put out many of the soul records that had kept Memphis on the musical map after Elvis Presley put it there. Ardent had minimal distribution and zero market power; thus, the album, though generating a handful of excellent reviews (including one in Rolling Stone), sank without a trace almost immediately. It is important to note that these reviews almost unanimously singled out Chilton for praise, and ignored Bell. Having had a few hits with the Box Tops in the 60s, Chilton was a familiar voice, a hook that reviewers could use to find an entranceway into Big Star’s music. However, Chris Bell did not see it that way. To him, this was his band and his vision, and the notion that Chilton should be consistently singled out was painful to him. Bell was, in fact, the member of the band who took the record’s failure most to heart. He suffered something close to a nervous breakdown; hospitalizations ensued. Yet, without knowing it, Big Star had paved the way (almost singlehandedly, at this point) for the phenomenon of indie rock, as it has been practiced right up to the present day in America. The idea of rugged musical individualists, willing to brave an indifferent public and low sales figures for the sake of creating unique music, has become as important a myth to American rock musicians as the Elvis myth, and has spawned an entire culture of ‘zines, venues, little record labels, radio stations, and web-sites. Put simply, along with the Velvet Underground, Big Star are the original indie-rock American heroes. The principles and ethos that were Big Star’s m.o. (clever, studied song-craft, original synthesis of diverse influences, “outsider” status in a given music scene, complete self-sufficiency, lack of interest in the “showbiz” level of rock) has been carried over by many generations of American indie rockers, and among the most obvious graduates of this school would be R.E.M., Husker Du, Replacements, and token Scots Teenage Fanclub. But back to #1 Record. Following the modulated assault of Feel, with its overt nod to White Album-era Beatles, come two songs that are as quintessentially American as anything in the rock catalogue. Alex Chilton has never specified exactly why or how he wrote The Ballad of El Goodo; what is certain is that this is the song on which one can hear the full debt that Chilton owes to Roger McGuinn, and to Notorious Byrd Brothers-era Byrds. The song, does, however, go beyond mere Byrds homage; it appears to reflect the feelings of a draft-dodger, someone who is fighting the powers that be, paying the price in bruises and strains but standing his ground nonetheless: Years ago my heart was set to live, oh.. Now I been trying hard against unbelievable odds… Gets so hard at times like now to hold on.. The guns can’t wait to be stuck right, and at my side is God.. And there ain’t no one goin’ to turn me around, ain’t no one goin’ to turn me ’round. There’s people ’round, who’ll tell you that they know.. And places where they’ll send you, and it’s easy to go…
They’ll zip you up and dress you down and stand you in a row.. But you know you don’t have to, you can just say no… And there ain’t no one goin’ to turn me around, ain’t no one goin’ to turn me ’round. I been built up, and trusted… broke down and busted… but they’ll get theirs and we’ll get ours if we can just hold on…hold on… What’s magical is that Chilton’s version of the American myth (as expressed in individualism and rebellion) is transparent and opaque at the same time. Given his autobiography, he could be singing about the producers that tried to keep him in the Box Tops, or literally about being drafted, or about the Big Star record not selling, but what is unmistakable in his voice is that he means it. Unlike in his often half-hearted solo career, Chilton sings this song with complete conviction. The opacity of the lyrics makes sense, because they are sung with such intensity that the lyrics do not need to be more specific. Chilton is singing about entrapment, and his own ability to liberate himself from entrapment, and Bell’s background harmonies make the whole thing stick (putting into place a haunting reminder of what entrapment feels like.) The very downbound quality of the Big Star myth gives this song added mystique; these are guys that had to be persistent, because nothing came easily to them. The rags-to-riches of 50s Elvis had given way to entropy and dissension; the idealistic dreams of the 60s were frayed, and rags-to-riches would have seemed archaic to Chilton and the rest of Big Star. They wanted the riches without ever having lived in rags; they were not innocent. As such, Chilton’s voice expresses a complex reality, and a complex set of circumstances. He is able to reference McGuinn while maintaining his own individualized take on American manhood. It is a dramatic rendering; the way Jody Stephens sets up the chorus with drum-rolls and fills, the twangy cowboy licks that Alex throws in at the end, the way Bell’s background vocals weave in and out of the mix. It is the drama of a kind of last stand; Chilton, via those cowboy licks, emerges victorious, his own man at last. Despite tragic overtones, it’s a song of American triumph. A different kind of triumph against authority is won in Thirteen. Ballad of El Goodo addresses adult authority, an experienced world; in Thirteen, we enter the world of the American adolescent. It is a world with blatant sexual overtones, but they emerge innocently and organically (as innocently and organically as Elvis’s sexuality emerged) from circumstances and, in this case, from an engagement with sex-in-music, as typified by the Rolling Stones: Won’t you let me walk you home from school… won’t you let me meet you at the pool… maybe Friday I can get tickets for the dance and I’ll take you… Won’t you tell your Dad get off my back.. tell him what we said ’bout “Paint it Black”.. rock and roll is here to stay, come inside where its OK and I’ll shake you… Won’t you tell me what you’re thinkin’ of… Would you be an outlaw for my love? If its over, let me know, if its “No” well I can go… I won’t make you… American adolescence is now punctuated with foreign accents; rock and roll is here to stay not because of Elvis (or Buddy or Little Richard), but because of Mick, Keith, and Brian. The instrumental accompaniment here couldn’t be more American, the scenario is as classic suburban Americana as it can be, and, willy-nilly, the British Invasion has made its way into the American heart-land. The boy in the song, whom we may assume is actually thirteen, or thereabouts, gets sexual confidence, which is transmuted into the confidence to rebuff authority (in the form of his girlfriend’s Dad) from listening to the Stones. It stands to reason that when this boy grows up to make music of his own, that it must, of necessity, be of a more polyglot nature than music his spiritual fathers and grandfathers made. American musical culture has lost its autonomy;
Chilton enumerates this in his rendering of horny, confident-yet-slightly-diffident suburban teenagers. This song has the most gorgeous melody of any song on #1 Record; in a perfect world, it would have become an instant classic, something to sing around the camp-fire (though the sexual overtones might have made certain counselors uncomfortable!) Elliott Smith, one of Chilton’s most brilliant disciples, did in fact cover this, as did Evan Dando of the Lemonheads and a host of others. In any case, this song is a hands-down classic, a true gem of the rock era and easily as good as the vast majority of songs by Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, Ray Davies, or Dylan. Listen to the smoothness of the guitar break in the middle, the seemingly effortless key changes, how they melt into the great last verse, with one of the most memorable tag-lines in all of popular music (“would you be an outlaw for my love?”), and listen to the Bell-Chilton harmonies at the end of each verse. The song is, in its own way, a tear-jerker, not out of its sadness but out of its pure musical and lyrical delight. It is, indeed, a delightful performance on every level. Nothing else on #1 Record quite lives up to these two tracks, but they take on the quality of genre exercises, and I will investigate the kind of generic territory that Big Star claimed for itself in the next installment.
The remainder of the tracks on #1 Record weave a diverse course through a number of different styles. Don’t Lie To Me, which follows Thirteen, is a simple, rather brutal Chris Bell rocker. It is noteworthy, in the context of this record, because it shies away from Beatles and Byrds references, instead offering a bit of Stones, and some nifty Clapton-style guitar licks. It is the only song in the Big Star catalogue that actually fits comfortably into the “Southern Rock” niche that was created in the early 1970s for bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band. Big Star’s diversity dictated that they at least nod in this direction, even if the general direction of the band was more towards British Invasion and other Anglo influences. Another Chris Bell song, My Life is Right, shows Bell deriving inspiration from a band that got famous for its close ties to the Beatles: Badfinger. Badfinger molded a sound that had a lot to do with the look and feel of early Beatles, but was played with the crunch and bite of 70s hard rock. Their signature song, No Matter What, is one of the glories of its era, a tight, compact, gleaming gem of a song that fits two worlds together (pop and hard rock) seamlessly. Chris Bell was clearly an avid follower of Badfinger; My Life is Right is paced very much like No Matter What, and the aching stretch of the melody line (you give me light/ you are my day) sounds near-lifted from a Badfinger record. This is important to note; that not only did Big Star learn from the Beatles, they learned from some of the Beatles brightest disciples. Lyrically, these two songs are rather rudimentary; a domestic quarrel in one, a standard Getting Better tale of redemption in the other. Bell, as a stylist, was more concerned here with assimilation of influences than in making original statements. To fit Bell-Chilton into the Lennon-McCartney mold, one would have to say that Chilton, with his superior lyrical abilites, would have to be Lennon, and Bell, with his penchant for assimilation and pastiche, would be McCartney. Among Chilton’s other songs on #1 Record, Watch the Sunrise is remarkable for its implicit darkness, the way brooding edges are revealed that undercut the ostensible meaning of the song. You have to hear the lyrics a few times to appreciate how creepy they are: I can feel it, now its time, open your eyes, fears be gone, it won’t be long, there’s a light in the skies, it’s OK to look outside, the day it will abide and watch the sunrise So, it would seem that, for the protagonist in the song, during nighttime it is not OK to look outside. Night, it is suggested, is a time of fear, uncertainty, and chilling possibilities. The fact that the song heralds the break of day does not alter what seems to be a kind of neurosis in the protagonist. This is important, because it will
be developed in later Chilton classics like Nighttime, Holocaust, and Kangaroo. What is Chilton afraid of, which lurks out there in the night? What does he find so creepy, that he is communicating (albeit in a backhanded way in Watch the Sunrise) to us? Musically, the song is interesting, with another solid melody and employing an open-G tuning on the acoustic guitar. Just the usage of the open-G tuning in interesting, in and of itself, because it could have come into Chilton’s musical vocabulary from a few different: perhaps from Keith Richards or Ry Cooder. Richards learned the tuning from Cooder, and promptly made it famous in Stones classics like Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar, and Street Fighting Man. In most cases, it could be taken for granted that an early 70s rock guitarist would have learned the tuning from Richards. However, Ry Cooder was a legendary figure in Southern music, and it is likely that Chilton had at least heard of Cooder and might have met him. This is another jumbled instance of spot-the-influence: are we getting Chilton regurgitating back Cooder via Brit-rocker Keith Richards, or did Chilton get the goods straight from the man himself? When My Baby’s Beside Me, an up-tempo Chilton number, also flirts with the dark side of things. Like My Life is Right, this is a simple redemption story. However, Chilton is incapable of playing is completely straight, as Bell does: Don’t need to talk about doctor, don’t need to talk about shrink, don’t need to hide behind no locked door, I don’t need to think.. Cause when my baby’s beside me I don’t worry, when my baby’s beside me all I know.. This outward admission of neurosis is quite unusual in the context of a song that aims, musically, to maintain an even pop-rock keel. This is one of the first hints of something slightly twisted in a Big Star song; usually, in a classic redemption scenario, we join the protagonist in exploring how bad things used to be, and how good they are now, owing to the intervention of the fabled princess. Chilton, however, presents a first stanza that is (again) a little creepy, a little nightmarish, especially if you flip the scenario around. Take out the fabled “baby,” and you have a protagonist that needs a shrink, hides behind a locked door, and can’t handle his own thought processes. The heaviness of this lyrical succession undercuts our ability to believe the chorus, that this woman has magically transformed our hero’s life; when a song (especially a rock song, as rock songs tend to be direct and immediate on the surface) fights this hard with itself, twists itself into this bizarre of a shape, we realize that Chilton’s perverse muse is beginning to rear its head. The seeds planted here will bear fruit further down the line; for now, an early listener of Big Star could be forgiven for thinking that this is just a nice uptempo pop-rocker, with a stunning guitar break. Musically, the track owes a little to Todd Rundgren, but remains substantially Chilton’s own. Chilton has moved beyond Bell; his sophistication is beginning to emerge. The India Song by Andy Hummel is an interesting diversion. Hummel is an unsung player in the Big Star story, but an important one: beyond crafting this gem, he wrote or co-wrote almost half the tracks on Radio City. This song is interesting for its arrangement, its instrumentation (flutes, giving the song a blatant 60s feel, which by 1972 would already have been considered “retro”), and also for another (this time bemused) nod at 60s counter-culture, much of it derived from the Beatles influence. The Beatles, after all, did actually go to India, as Hummel fantasizes about doing here. As light and humorous as the song is, it does serve to illustrate the way in which All-American music-makers could no longer maintain their autonomy. India Song would have been unlikely-to-impossible had British rock not made raga and sitars fashionable in the 60s. Hummel is “taking the piss” out of rock’s obsession with all things Indian, but in a loving way. There is a genuine lightness to this song that is not found anywhere else on #1 Record. Hummel’s key role in crafting Radio City would seem to exempt him from playing George Harrison; the remarkable nature of his basswork on Radio City would also argue against this placement. In any case, between Bell, Chilton, and Hummel, we have three distinct personalities. As we move towards Radio City, we will see how the disappearance of one (Chris Bell) allowed the blooming of the other two to occur, in a way that would have been otherwise impossible.
Between the commercial failure of #1 Record and the recording of Radio City in 1973, Big Star dissolved and reconvened. The departure of Chris Bell put the band’s career in jeopardy; he had been the leader and the driving force, though Alex Chilton’s songs proved to be both more durable and more extraordinary. Big Star remained in limbo until a collection of rock journalists decided to hold a convention in Memphis, and asked Big Star to headline the convention. It is important to remember that Big Star were critic’s darlings, right from the beginning, and were held in high esteem by the rock cognescenti. In any case, Chilton talked things over with Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens and they collectively decided to go ahead and play the gig. The gig was successful enough that the band felt justified to continue, if only in the short term. A new batch of songs came together very quickly, and Big Star spent the autumn of 1973 recording them. Without Chris Bell’s intervention, Chilton and Hummel were free to indulge themselves. The result was an album that often makes critic’s and aficionado’s Top Ten lists. While #1 Record put together strains of the Beatles and the Byrds, Radio City pulls off a more interesting feat; it melds the jangle and melodic deftness that characterized #1 Record with the crunch, solid riffs, and lustful strut of the Rolling Stones. No one, before or since, has put the Byrds and Stones pieces together in quite this way; the key is Chilton’s guitar playing. Chilton was often photographed at this time playing a Gibson Firebird; I am not sure what he is playing on this record, but the sound is unique, crystalline and full-bodied at the same time. Chilton’s fabulous guitar work here runs the gamut: lead-breaks that approach Clapton and Mick Taylor; arpeggios that extend the vocabulary of rock guitar playing; seldom-used chords that the give the record, for all its All-American sheen, an exotic quality. This is the kind of album that you can play air-guitar to; yet everything is played with a light touch, so that the light/heavy dichotomy becomes very apparent. It is also worth noting that this album was extremely influential for the whole sound and feel of American indie rock of the 80s and 90s. From Peter Buck straight through to the Gin Blossoms, this is the sound of an American summer, American roads, driving around with the top down, etc. This album, more than #1 Record or the equally excellent Sister Lovers that is to come, encapsulates the sound of a distinct, entire, circumscribed America that is Big Star’s own. Many others followed Big Star down this trail, but is was Alex, Andy, and Jody that blazed it. The record establishes its uniqueness instantly. The first chord on the record is an Amaj6, a very seldom used chord in popular idioms, though often found in jazz. I can think of only three occasions that a maj6 chord appears in a rock song: Hendrix uses one in Up From the Skies, Jimmy Page uses one in What Is and What Should Never Be, and the Beatles end She Loves You with a harmonized maj6 chord. The Amaj6 soon modulates up into D, leading us to believe that this will follow some variant of a twelve-bar blues format; however, things halt on E into more involved riffage and the pattern breaks. Even more important than the maj6 chords is the sound of the band itself. Jody Stephens entrance on drums is wild bordering on drunken; once the band starts to chug, the energy generated seems almost out of control, like it could fly apart at any moment. Hummel’s funky, syncopated bass line heightens this impression. Between Hummel, Stephens, and Chilton, a unique chemistry is generated, that has a special charisma, an “X-Factor” that is impossible to definitely pinpoint. It has something to do with ragged edges meeting sophistication head-on. This is unusual. When you think of a band like Steely Dan, sophistication and perfection, slickness, and sheen go hand in hand. Likewise, if you think of the Stooges or the MC5, ragged edges mean sloppiness, carelessness, bum notes, and a bad attitude. Somehow Big Star manages to capture both, sophistication and ragged edges, at once, and uniquely so. Most of those who have followed in Big Star’s footsteps have picked up the sloppiness without picking up the sophistication, not understanding that it is the synergy between the two elements that really makes Big Star tick. This opening track is called O My Soul and, if you just listen to the first thirty seconds, it would be easy to mistake the track for a simple groove-rocker. However, as the track continues, something strange happens: the track refuses to fall into a predictable pattern. It appears, eventually, to seem like two or three songs pasted together. However, this is done without ever leaving a solid groove. It is easy to see why Big Star became a cult favorite among critics and musicians: unlike in most pop music, even in good pop music, you have to pay attention to notice what’s happening. The structure of O My Soul is absolutely, wildly idiosyncratic; what melds the disparate parts together is the steady interplay (as the song goes through its different phases) of Hummel, Stephens, and Chilton. If these guys were poets, they would have been avantgardists; there is nothing easy about this track except the lyrics, which do border on the inane (a trend that reverses as the album continues.) It is also remarkable just how baroque Chilton’s guitar work can be, even in a track as funky and gritty as this. Most rock guitarists either just play chords or just play riffs; Chilton is all over the map, with chords, riffs, and quirky arpeggiated patterns that are the musical equivalent of question marks. It also goes to show just how quickly Chilton developed into a stunning guitar player; he began, in the
Box Tops, not knowing how to play at all. By Radio City, he has hit on a style perfect for his partnership with Hummel and Stephens: jangle, grit, and strum, all shot through with a penchant for weird asides and bizarre outbursts. We are very far away from the over-disciplined, over-controlled aura of #1 Record; Radio City is the album in which Big Star established their own musical universe.
O My Soul establishes the dominant strain of Radio City: idiosyncratic, musically sophisticated pop-rock, with visible jagged edges adding a hint of incipient darkness. That darkness is bourne out towards the end of the album, but the second track, Life is White, manages to be both jagged and spry. There is an angularity to the track that makes it seem, at times, close to the threshold of chaos. The track opens abruptly with Alex Chilton’s voice singing over a plodding admixture of chunky rhythm guitar, bass, and thudding drums. However, only one line into the song, an effect is added that gives the track its special ambience; it is Chilton doing a kind of drone-effect on a harmonica, in such a way that you can imagine him sputtering and wheezing after the magic take. The harmonica-drone works, partly because it provides counterpoint to the plodding, thudding rhythm, partly because it gives the track a kind of primitivism, and uniquely so. When the Velvets used drones, they employed guitars, violas, and organs (not to mention Moe Tucker banging on a trash-can); no one, to my knowledge, has used this kind of harmonica-drone, before or since. Yet it is a feat of wacky imagination rather than technical virtuosity. As the jazz musicians used to say, if it sounds good, it is good. Lyrically, this is a step above O My Soul, and the kind of vicious vindictiveness expressed is vintage Chilton: Don’t like to see your face Don’t like to hear you talk out loud I can be with Anne, but I just get bored can’t even bring myself to call and I don’t want to see you now cause I know what you lack and I can’t go back to that Whatever, it’s all the same, now there’s nobody who knows and I can’t recall, recall your name all I can say is “So?” Your life is white and I don’t think I like you hangin around… Many Big Star fans have pointed out that this seems to be a reply to Chris Bell’s My Life is Right from #1 Record. The title is a pun, and the lyrics (though displaced and directed towards an anonymous “Anne”) are Chilton’s terse fuck off to Bell. I do not know that this has ever been established with Chilton, but it does add an interesting meta-dimension to the song that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Chilton, all through the Big Star years, is wont to cannibalize other people’s song-titles; What’s Goin Ahn from Marvin Gaye, Blue Moon, She’s A Mover, but this is the only time he cannibalizes another Big Star song. What exactly happened between Chilton and Bell? What went wrong? Chilton famously said in a 1980 radio interview, “Big Star broke up because Chris Bell was a homosexual.” It has been confirmed by family and friends that Bell was, in fact, gay, but why Chilton would find this problematic is unclear. Is there a gay subtext running through the Big Star oeuvre? This claim has been made not infrequently in profiles of the band. While I would certainly not deny its importance if I did, in fact, see it, I can’t say that a gay streak is noticeable to me in Big Star. There seems, oddly enough, to be more of a homoerotic current in Chilton’s later solo material, like Bangkok and No Sex, then in Big Star. It would seem instructive that, in the context of Life is White, Chilton inserts a
woman’s name so that whether or not the song is an anti-homage to Chris Bell remains in doubt. Who knows? The most likely explanation is simply that Bell’s gayness made Chilton uncomfortable. During the time this record was being made, Bell was beginning to struggle, and it is not unlikely that Chilton felt the need to distance himself, albeit in a sideways fashion in this track. Oddly enough, for a song bitter enough to be a companion piece to Sexy Sadie, the song seems to bust its sides laughing at itself. After the second chorus and the bridge, we get a honky-tonk piano break out of nowhere. The combination of the honky-tonk piano and the wheezing harmonica drone is like a musical dirty joke, especially because once again Jody Stephens “gets drunken” to fit in with the mood of the track. The song is produced in such a way that the sound is extremely bright, trebly, and sharp, and this is one of the few songs on Radio City that is not completely dominated by guitar. The honky-tonk piano break, which causes a rupture in the rhythm of the track (though the rhythm never actually abates), has the effect of taking something (relatively) straightforward into a realm (once again) of total quirkiness. Yet the culmination of the track is extremely muscular and satisfying, the punch of Alex’s voice straining to hit “I don’t want to SEE YOU NOW”, and the slight variation (lyrically) in the last line of the song (which sounds to me like an ad lib) “and I can’t go back to that now” gives the track heat, punch, and depth. It is important to note that quirk, in reference to popular music, is often synonymous with insubstantiality, and lack of muscle; that is by no means the case here. The magical tension between Chilton, Hummel, and Stephens has an explosive quality, so that when these guys hit a crescendo, it registers as visceral (even when they seem to be goofing around.) This ability to meld goofball musical humor with precision and power is the reason I’ve written this post in the first place. What’s so American about it? That’s difficult to explain. Maybe it’s the humor, the drunkenness, and the sophistication that it’s shot through with; maybe it’s Chilton’s voice. Whatever it is, many generations of American musicians have responded to tracks like this, though defining what makes them representatively American can be difficult. The track that this leads into, however, is so quintessentially American that even its title reeks of Americana: Way Out West. Adam Fieled, 2012 ****These pieces are derived from the blog Adam Fieled’s Fair Game****
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